Taking helm amid turmoil

Times Staff Writer

Felipe Calderon takes office today as one of Mexico’s weakest presidents, hemmed in by ruthless drug lords, industry monopolists, tax cheats and a bare-knuckle leftist movement that threatens to block his every move.

Calderon’s only hope of fixing the nation’s social and economic ills lies with a cooperative, well-managed Congress. But lawmakers have taken over the lower house, sleeping overnight in chairs and aisles, pledging to disrupt his nationally televised inauguration.

Unlike his predecessor, Vicente Fox, who entered office in 2000 to cheers and a wave of support after his election ended decades of single-party rule, Calderon risks international humiliation on his first day. Analysts say things could go downhill from there.

“One of the big mistakes most Americans make is to think that Mexico has a party system of politics,” said John Womack, a history professor and Mexico expert at Harvard. “But it’s Shakespearean. It’s like a contested dynasty with a weak cousin about to ascend to the throne and the court pulled 20 different ways by rebellious barons. It’s a court in disarray trying to fashion itself into a constitutional republic.”


Before Fox, Mexican presidents cut their political deals behind closed doors before even taking office. In public, they were the nation’s undisputed leaders.

But Mexico’s emerging democracy is fragmented among three major parties and special interests, such as drug traffickers, industrialists, unions and leftists. Proposed reforms can be easily derailed by any of them. Leading the country will require a masterful politician, analysts say, and Calderon has yet to show that kind of skill.

Campaign aides, for example, said in September that Calderon would choose Cabinet members based on their ability to deliver congressional votes. Failing in that, he ended up choosing friends and party allies, as well as U.S.-trained economic experts.

“His political appointments were the equivalent of circling the wagons,” said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “He and his party are acting out of necessity, but it plays into the hands of the left, which is trying to paint this as an ideological clash between neocons and the left.”


As many as a third of Mexicans believe the July election was stolen from leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Demonstrators camped out on the capital’s main boulevard for more than a month this summer demanding a recount, and Lopez Obrador declared himself the “legitimate” president on Nov. 20.

Political deals with Lopez Obrador backers in Congress look pretty unlikely, especially since they’re threatening to disrupt the inauguration. Calderon’s National Action Party holds the most congressional seats but needs support from lawmakers in other parties to pass reforms. Lopez Obrador’s Democratic Revolution Party has the second-largest bloc.

The new president has set his main goals: create jobs and reduce crime and poverty. Achieving them would be difficult under the best of circumstances, starting with the war over drug smuggling routes along the U.S.-Mexico border that has spread nationwide.

“There have been 2,000 deaths this year in a drug war and because of that there are parts of the country that you can’t even enter,” said Daniel Lund, a Mexico City-based pollster and political consultant.


The fight against drug traffickers will require years, lives and a lot of money, Calderon said, “but it’s a battle that we will win.”

Others are not so sure. The enormous sums generated by illegal drugs have compromised Mexican law enforcement, from street cops to elite special forces, judges and generals.

One of Calderon’s first big-ticket proposals will be to simplify the tax code and lower rates to get Mexicans to pay. Rampant tax evasion and lax enforcement have left the government dependent on oil revenue to keep the country afloat. Fox tried and failed to get Congress to approve a broadening of the sales tax.

Another herculean task for Calderon will be dealing with Mexico’s billionaires, whose net worth equals an estimated 6% of the nation’s GDP. A handful of families, for example, control most of the country’s telecommunications, beverage sales and construction materials. Carlos Slim, the world’s third-richest man, owns or controls firms that account for 40% of the Mexican stock exchange.


Market inefficiencies from this lack of competition are costing Mexico jobs and money, experts say, and deepening the divide between a tiny rich minority and the estimated 50 million people living in poverty.

But Calderon kept mum this year when Congress approved a controversial overhaul of broadcasting laws that will be a windfall to two families who own 94% of Mexico’s television stations.

Calderon, who spent a year studying public administration at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is a supporter of the free market. He was apparently reluctant, however, to take on the dominant Televisa and TV Azteca networks while campaigning.

“He needs to deal with all this as a crisis,” said Womack, the history professor, “instead of trying to make it look like something you can solve with a simple administrative textbook trick that you might learn at the Kennedy school.”